After years of struggle, some 2 million people in South Africa are being treated for HIV/ AIDS with antiretroviral drugs, leading one official to say the country has "definitely turned a corner." NBC's Ron Allen reports.
JOHANNESBURG – As more than 2 million South Africans are now taking antiretroviral medications, many are optimistic that the country is on the verge of declaring victory against HIV/AIDS.
“We are quite optimistic because we have definitely turned the corner,” Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said during a recent interview with NBC News. “We know it is a long way, still quite a journey, but we’ve definitely turned the corner,” he concluded.
South Africa is “on the threshold of declaring victory” against the disease, the country’s Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said in June, at the close of the sixth major conference on the epidemic here.
Still, the numbers chronicling the disease can be staggering. In 2011, some 270,000 people died of HIV-related illnesses in South Africa, but that was 100,000 fewer than a few years earlier, according to the AIDS foundation of South Africa.
And the country still has the highest number of people in the world living with HIV: some 5.5 million, or more than 10 percent of the entire population. And that figure is closer to 20 percent of women of reproductive age. Stopping transmission of the disease from mothers to their children is one of the government’s top priorities. The health minister said that rate has been reduced by 63 percent.
Motsoaledi was also in an upbeat mood the day we spoke because of the visitors he was expecting to arrive at the Ramotse Health Clinic.
Mujahid Safodien / Reuters
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton accompanied by his daughter, Chelsea, talks to staff of the Ramotsa Clinic in Hammanskraal, near Pretoria on August 7, 2013.
Hundreds of area residents packed the grounds of the small neighborhood health center found along a hard worn road, in a rural poor town called Hammanskraal, about an hour’s drive from South Africa’s capital, Pretoria. Children from the school next door sang and danced to the beat of tribal drums.
The guests were former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea. It was just one stop on a 10-day, five-nation tour of humanitarian projects supported by the Clinton Global Initiative.
The organization has been leading a massive worldwide effort to get lifesaving antiretroviral medication to poor people, especially in Africa, and South Africa in particular.
The key strategy is to work with governments and the drug industry to bring down prices and make lifesaving medications more affordable.
In 2002, when the Clinton Health Access Initiative was started, about 200,000 people in poor countries were receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS at a cost of about $10,000 per person, per year. In just over a decade, those figures have jumped to more than 6 million people at a cost of about $200 per person.
“Until everybody who needs this medication to stay alive and lead a good life has access to it, none of us will be satisfied,” Clinton told his very appreciative audience Wednesday. Clinton added that the goal is to triple the number of patients receiving the medication in four years.
Rural towns like the one the Clintons visited are where the most difficult battle against HIV/AIDS happens. It’s where we met Ester Kobe, in her small cement-block house, bedridden because of HIV. She’s a 39-year-old single mother, helped by a volunteer caretaker because her family abandoned her – because of her disease.
Kobe’s aide Shadi Mmekwa, from the nearby and appropriately named Perseverance Community Center, lifted Kobe’s head so she could drink from a cup of water. She then explained to us that even though she brings HIV medications to Kobe, she’s still quite ill because she doesn’t have enough food to eat.
The funeral of a young child in Hammanskraal, South Africa. The HIV epidemic here, which claims hundreds of thousands each year, remains one of the most deadly anywhere.
Lack of food is an endemic problem in rural communities, where illiteracy rates are also high, and what health centers exist are overwhelmed, unstaffed and in short supply of the basics. All of these factors, health workers say, can complicate and limit the effectiveness of the multiple antiretroviral drug regime many patients must take.
In April, South Africa began limited treatments with a new single or fixed dose medication. The so-called FDC is so far only available to newly diagnosed patients, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers who have HIV.
We also saw signs of hope and promise in the courtyard of Perseverance Community Center. Dozens of children arrived after school neatly dressed and ready for a meal and daily exercise. They stood in line stretching, flexing and bending their arms and legs. Then, later, they were each given a slice of bread. Here, that’s not a snack -- it’s a meal. Many of the children are orphans, their parents taken from them by HIV.
South Africa’s Medical Research Council recently estimated there could be as many as 5.7 million children here who will have lost at least one parent by 2015. That’s about one third of all the children in the country.
So, while there may be some good news about the HIV epidemic in South Africa, there’s also a long way to go.